I’m not sure if there was any movie in the 80’s that I watched more than “Red Dawn”. How my VHS copy was able to withstand the multiple viewings during my teen years is beyond me. This 1984 war film from director John Milius is a unique, almost “what if” story anchored in 1980s world politics. With the trailer of the upcoming remake already released, I felt it was the perfect time revisit what was one of my favorite movies of its decade. “Red Dawn” was a popular movie that stirred lots of conversations particularly for those craving something political to harp on. It was also criticized for its violence which at that time was considered heavy. In fact, the movie has the distinction of being the first film to receive a PG-13 rating from the MPAA.
But how is the movie itself? Even more interesting, how does “Red Dawn” hold up after all these years? I thought a cool way to help me determine this would be to watch it with my son and see how he responded after his first viewing. It was pretty telling to see him have a similar reaction to the one I had over 25 years ago. For my son, it was an exciting action movie. For me, it’s still a really good film built around good characters that holds up exceptionally well. For those looking, there are certainly things to nitpick. But I find the film’s few weaknesses easy to overlook considering how well conceived and well structured the movie is. And even after all these years I found myself excited when I was supposed to be excited and emotional when I was supposed to be emotional. For me it still pulls the right strings.
“Red Dawn” begins with one of my personal favorite openings of any movie. It doesn’t waste time and gets right into the meat of the story. In the small town of Calumet, Colorado, Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) drops his younger brother Matt (a sane and stable Charlie Sheen) and friend Aardvark (Doug Toby) off at school. It’s just another normal September morning. But later during history class, their teacher notices a large group of paratroopers landing outside. He walks out to see what’s going on and is shot dead as the students watch from inside. The paratroopers then open fire on the school as kids scramble to get away. Jed drives up amid the chaos and picks up Matt and Aardvark along with Robert (C. Thomas Howell), Daryl (Darren Dalton), and Danny (Brad Savage). The boys tear through town and then head for the mountains to hide out.
One of the most compelling things about the story is that these are just kids. We’re constantly reminded that we aren’t dealing with trained soldiers but kids who are suffering through fear, panic, and eventually loss. In fact, after seeing the new trailer, one of my biggest concerns about the upcoming remake is that the kids come across as a cool special ops-like team. But a big part of what propels the original is their fear – fear of their circumstances, fear of losing their families, fear of death. But they are forced to overcome their fears and when the harsh reality of this new war-torn country shows itself to them, they’re forced to grow up fast.
As the movie unfolds, the kids have to fight back. There’s no deeply strategic military influence to their actions. It’s strictly guerilla warfare against what we find out are Russian and Cuban forces. They take on the moniker “Wolverines”, named after the school’s sports mascot, and begin complicating things for the enemy army by attacking caravans, freeing prisoners, and sabotaging strategic checkpoints. The action is very well done and it progresses from bows and arrows and hunting rifles to mounted machine guns and RPGs. But what’s really impressive is how the group progresses. The way it’s presented, I had no trouble believing that these kids had adapted as the stakes got higher. Sure, some of the shouts of “Wolverines” are cheesy, but the action is thrilling and it’s truly pertinent to the story.
The boys end up taking on the two granddaughters of a local rancher, Erica (Lea Thompson) and Toni (Jennifer Grey). At first there is some tension between the girls and the guys but soon they’re fighting right alongside of each other. They also are joined by a United States Air Force pilot (Powers Boothe) whose plane is shot down in their area. He gives them a better understanding of the gravity of the war as well as some much-needed experience that pushes their “operation” a little further. These characters mix in well and it doesn’t take long before you actually feel invested in them as well. They each have their place in the story and I still found myself caring for them especially when things begin to go bad for the group.
The entire idea behind “Red Dawn” can certainly be viewed as preposterous. But there is still a grounded and sincerely human element to the film that doesn’t feel a bit outlandish. Again, the politics of the 80’s and the international tensions of the time plays a key part in setting up the story and understanding them will definitely make the movie feel more real. But overall this is an action picture. It takes an intriguing story built around an interesting concept and some good chemistry and creates a movie that feels very 80’s-ish while also still holding up today. I’m still skeptical about the remake, but I have no qualm with calling the original “Red Dawn” a really good movie.